The discussion inevitably comes up - someone sees you playing guitar, or listening to something particularly guitar driven, or watching someone associated with the guitar (probably the electric guitar).

And once again, it’s been asked of me – so I thought it was worth formulating a better answer than the usual one I provide.

Who is the greatest guitarist in the world?

One of the things that’s so fantastic about the guitar is that, even with all the current access to recorded music we have and technology (we can listen instantly to an exponentially greater variety of music than ever before and can carry amp modellers in our pockets), there are still limitless ways to play, and make music with the guitar. 

The same principles apply to instrumentalists, bands, composers, creators of any kind.

When talking about the best guitarist, we are really talking about who most closely matches what any single person considers to be the best balance of complementary elements that comprise ‘being a guitarist’.

To decide this I think you are looking at several factors.

The first factor in this is technique, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “A way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure”

How capable is the musician of executing with precision that which you are hearing?  Of course, even this is a relative term – the charm of some music is the fact that it is appropriately executed in a manner that’s not what you could call “slick”, and other music of course demands an impeccable technical approach to reveal it’s potential.

But in general, it could be said that the greatest guitarist in the world must have pretty formidable technique.  If this were the measure alone, however, than the fastest guitarist in the world would the best, as if there were a musical finish line that one only had to cross first.  This doesn’t seem to be the case in most people's choices.

The second factor that I personally consider (even when I’m not really thinking about it) is theoretical ability – the styles and approaches of playing that a guitarist has awareness of (this might sound irrelevant to non-musicians but it is a factor, I assure you).  Is someone blisteringly fast but after sustained listening, revealed to be playing the same scale or idea over and over again, or do they have a wider grasp of harmonic/rhythmic/stylistic possibilities?   It doesn’t mean that someone has to be the master of eclectism and everything they play is a mashup of country, jazz, metal, blues, rock, psych, sweep picking, travis picking, tapping, etc - It’s more a case of, can they play something somewhat informed by the breadth of music produced by humans thus far, which to me (or whomever is listening) adds up to how interesting I think they are (informed by my own opinions and experience, of course).

The third factor I consider is taste.  It can be true that  someone CAN do something technically and theoretically, but how they choose to do this is a separate issue entirely.  Too much of one thing, or one level of intensity can dull the ability of a listener to appreciate it over time.  The most immediate example that comes to mind is the song Peanuts, by The Police.  Because Andy Summers is such a master of space and restraint and consideration in his playing, the chaotic intense solo in Peanuts completely makes me stop whatever I’m doing and listen to it every time I hear it, and decades of listening to it has done very little to lesson the impact it has on me.  10 solos in 10 consecutive songs on an album (or 5) in just that manner wouldn’t have the same effect (to me – some people like all chocolate all the time and they’re completely right to do so if it makes them happy – this is just how I see it).  In other words, do they keep you interested in continuing to listen to what they have to say, or does their effectiveness evaporate after a short while.

Finally, and this concept is transferrable to other instrumentalists as well, I consider tone to be pretty defining.  Do you absolutely love an overdriven Vox AC 30 (you know who you are)?  Then a 1970’s solid state amp may do nothing for you.  Do you love the tone of Richie Blackmore on the early 1970’s Deep Purple albums?  Pat Methany’s tone may do nothing for you..

As professional musicians have generally had an infinite variety of instrument types and electrically driven conduits for their playing (never moreso than today), the decisions they make as to what will be creating their tone are as important an element of what their producing as a guitarist as any other.

Which leads me to my ultimate conclusion – there really can’t be a greatest guitarist (or composer, or songwriter) in the world – there can be the one you like the most, which can lead you down your particular rewarding path of musical discovery (and can change, sometimes repeatedly), but as to there actually being a single greatest example that everyone can agree on – it’s not really possible, in my opinion.  The standards by which you judge your favourite to be your favourite will by their very existence rule out someone equally as proficient/influential/talented with a different balance of these factors.

Allan Holdsworth, Django Reinhardt, Ace Frehley, George Harrison, Larry LaLonde, Buddy Guy, Robert Fripp etc etc… all making something wonderful in their own way, yours to discover…